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|I Am Skooter|
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
I think everybody finds Bob Dylan eventually. Some may find him inscrutable, unintelligible and frustrating but it’s hard to deny the singer songwriter’s influence and role in the growth of that most American form of music—Rock and Roll (or is it Country?) His lyrics are complex (a friend recorded a cover that got some traction online once, but he told me he wasn’t performing it live because it had “Too many words to remember”) and his nasally voice can make them hard to understand, but the legend of the man has its roots in a legacy that’s hard to ignore or avoid.
I’d never seen Dylan live. I came to the man late. I’ll readily admit to having horrible taste in music as a teenager, though the first concert I ever attended was Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road tour so I have that my credit. I had an uncle whose taste crossed to Steve Earle but tended towards Willie Nelson and not to the Townes Van Zandt and Dylan side of that particular mix. There was no way I was going to listen to Country as an angst ridden 16 year old and that’s a shame because if I’d gone from Steve to Willie I might have found my way to Bob some other way.
It was the bootleg releases that got me, and specifically Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966 the “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. It was officially released in 1998 and one of my daily Internet check ins gave the album a rating of 100 out of a 100, calling it the “greatest rock and roll record ever recorded.” With a review like that, I figured there wasn’t much to lose buying it. It’s an album that transcends its recorded media to be something more like a musical time capsule. It’s famous “Judas!” moment seems to capture the transition from the hopeful, wistful, acoustic sixties to the more electric (and sadly disco infused) 70s; the version of Visions of Johanna at that album is about as perfect as will ever see the light of day, recorded by a man at his prime; the snarling angry rendition of Like a Rolling Stone at the end (with it’s “Play fucking loud” intro seems to define the end of an era, an impression that’s emphasized by the subsequent disappearance of the man after the infamous motorcycle accident that came shortly after.
I was pretty hooked, and that album stayed in the CD player of my Jeep for a very long time after that. A couple of years later the music of Dylan played a central role in High Fidelity, which remains one of my favourite films to this day. The book isn’t bad either, but I got to the movie first and in this case it’s a pretty even balance so I stick with the film.
It took 12 years, but I finally saw Dylan live. The occasion was a tour with Mark Knopfler, and that seemed like a double bill that I couldn’t miss. I managed to snag a pair of floor tickets in the thirteenth row for about $100 each. That’s not bad for a lineup like this.
Knopfler was astonishing. I wouldn’t expect much less, of course. His set was heavy on music from his most recent release Privateering and that’s not a bad thing. Standouts from the set included Redbud Tree, All the Roadrunning and Song for Sonny Liston (which featured an extended guitar solo that was just mind boggling.) Knopfler was engaging and friend with the audience. “We’re going to attempt this one. It’s another new one,” was how he introduced Redbud Tree. “That’s all they are, just attempts. You could get hurt up here trying this.”
Not Mark, I don’t think. If I tried to play a guitar like that getting hurt would be an almost certain thing but that guy? He makes it look easy. His band has not one but two backup guitarists in it and I started contemplating the idea of getting that audition call. Playing guitar with Mark Knopfler is probably on the top ten list of most terrifying and amazing gigs in any musicians’s career. The band was great of course—even the accordion, which Knopfler introduced by saying “We had a vote on the accordion, but it’s here anyway.” Knopfler closed out his set by introducing them during an extended version of Marbletown. If the crowd was disappointed at not hearing any Dire Straits classics it didn’t show.
The contrast with Dylan’s set was obvious from the start. With vocals that were muddied and arrangements that were so different from the album versions we’ve all worn our needles out listening too it was a challenge to even identify Tangled Up in Blue. Desolation Row’s distinctive lyrics were easier to understand, but I was basically trading text messages and internet search results with a friend who—despite the fact that he had some version of a set list at his disposal—was having as much trouble as me. Dylan didn’t speak to the crowd at all, running quickly through a set list that spanned his career but included nothing from his most recent release Tempest (a shame too, since it’s actually a rather fine album.)
The Vancouver crowd was, of course, enthralled. The guy sitting behind me was literally dancing on his feet for the entire duration of a show that three of us considered mediocre at best. The piano playing wasn’t great, the band paled in comparison to Knopflers and some of the jazzy arrangement were just strange.
If you were in row 14, seat 14 for the Vancouver edition of this tour all power to you for having a good time man, but I think you were at a different show than I was.
As Dylan’s set drew to a close Like a Rolling Stone rolled out of that gravelly throat and banged forth from that piano. It was, like the rest of the set, a slightly jazzy more upbeat version. It paled in comparison to that legendary 1966 performance. A friend called it “horrid” and I said “I can live with it.” It wasn’t that I liked it, but I can go to my grave having heard Bob Dylan sing the greatest song in the history of rock and roll live. It probably won’t happen again, so there’s that.
That song closed out that 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert and it closes out the album. It’s refrain of “How does it feel / To be on your own / No direction home / Like a complete unknown / Like a rolling stone” comes through speakers and headphones and hits my brain like a tonne of bricks. It’s not the best song on the album—that honour goes to Visions of Johanna—but it resonates in an entirely unique way.
It was that song, a song I’ve called the greatest song in the history of rock and roll even if I think it’s not the best Bob Dylan song, that led me to finding Bob Dylan. As these things happen, that Royal Albert Hall CD had slipped out of rotation a bit. It was replaced by any number of other things, not the least of which was Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (and to say that album changed my life is a bit of an understatement.) The Royal Albert Hall CD didn’t disappear though. It would show up every once in a while in my CD player, and when I bought my first house on February 20th of 2003 it was one of the first discs to make it into the five disc changer. Hooking up a stereo is always one of the first things I do when I move, because I can’t imagine a home without music in it.
I moved in happy and looking forward to a new life in a home that I owned, with a woman I loved and who I expected to marry. It was a good time.
And then Dick died. As it turned out, he died the day I moved in but I got my first notice about it three days later—February 23rd. It was an email from a friend of his who I’d never met, and all it said was “I’m sure you’ve heard the horrible news about Richard.” Dick’s name was Richard Charteris, and I hadn’t heard anything but I immediately assumed the worst. It turned out, I was right. I didn’t sleep that night. I tried, but circumstances worked against me. I walked until 5 a.m. in the cold, wet Vancouver night. Alone.
When I got home, that Royal Albert Hall concert CD was still in the CD player, and it went into heavy rotation and the volume knob went up. Visions of Johanna tore me apart every time. Desolation Row took on a whole new meaning. One Too Many Mornings was a favourite but the album always ended the same: with that epic, snarling chorus of Like a Rolling Stone and the volume knob on the amp going moving just a little bit higher again.
That’s when I truly found Bob Dylan. It was that second go around with the Royal Albert Hall concert that locked it into my memory forever, and it remains tied to that time for me. Every time I hear that album I remember Richard. The next few months were hard ones: I got married and quickly divorced and my work situation wasn’t great. “Now you don’t talk so loud / Now you don’t seem so proud / About having to be scrounging for your next meal.” I spent a while scrounging, that’s for sure.
There’s a nobleness to Dylan’s lyrics. A richness and a complexity that’s missing in a lot of music these days. It’s the reason that he’s often considered the greatest living songwriter. That living modifier in that sentence is convenient: it takes out luminaries of equal complexity like Townes Van Zandt and John Lennon, both equally deserving of the title. In truth, the notion of a greatest is a fool’s game: it’s an argument for the argument’s sake, and one that can’t be won. One thing’s for sure, when Dylan is no longer living he’ll still be considered one of the greatest and some new voice will have taken his place atop the living podium.
As the memories of those horrible few days faded, and the reality of that horrible year started to slide into the past I moved on from that album again. Wilco’s A Ghost is Born went into heavy rotation. I had no job, and no money so I downloaded it and didn’t even realize I was missing Hummingbird. (Note to the band: I’ve since bought the vinyl, along with everything else including the UniPo’s, the camera strap and more vinyl…most of it twice. Can we call it even?) I found happiness in that album, along with Neko Case and others.
It’s the songwriting that leads people to Dylan, and you can tell people who care about music a lot because it’s always the songwriting. Richard’s birthday was October 20th—a couple of days ago, and only four days after that Knopfler/Dylan show I went too. It was funny timing, because every year around this time that album slips into heavy rotation. It happens without me even being conscious of it.
It’s the first time I’ve seen Dylan live and it’ll probably be the last. The man’s 71 years old and opportunities to see him are rare. That the show was mediocre is only partly the point too: we’ll never see Dylan in his prime again. That moment at the Royal Albert Hall show where he responded to the cry of “Judas!” by saying “You’re a liar. I don’t believe you.” is almost 50 years gone, and we can’t go back. That Dylan still tours at all is somewhat remarkable; that he’s still reinventing his oldest work is impressive, even if the results are uneven.
Everyone finds Bob Dylan eventually, even if the path there can be a little uneven at times. It’s those uneven times that make life worth living anyway, and I couldn’t have asked for better company on the way.
Happy Birthday Richard. Believe me, my friend, you were there with me in spirit.